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When it comes to DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract issue, sacks absolutely do matter

Don’t believe that as long as Lawrence does the other things well, that sacks don’t matter.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Before we proceed any further, this isn’t an article advocating for the release of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. There are definitely arguments to be had around that decision if it should come to pass. Whether the Cowboys overpaid because they waited too long to sign him to a big deal three seasons ago is a matter for historical review. His importance as a leader in the locker room and on the field also plays into it, as do many other factors.

Instead, what this article is advocating for is getting rid of the idea that sacks really shouldn’t be a way to judge Lawrence, and by extension high-priced EDGE players. With Lawrence posting a combined sack total of 14.5 over the last three years since signing his big contract, there has been a movement to suggest that sacks aren’t as important a measure of performance and that fans are concentrating on the wrong thing.

This is a refutation of that idea. Sacks are king and the statistics show it to be true. It’s the reason pass rushers get all that money in the first place. It’s the reason the Cowboys waited a year (rightly or wrongly) to sign Lawrence to a long-term deal. They were waiting to see if he could back up his 14.5 sacks in 2017, and he did by notching 10.5 in 2018.

We can all appreciate Lawrence’s all-around game. His ability to play the run among defensive ends is second-to-none. He is a tireless worker when he plays, and he can be an emotional inspiration. There is nothing bad to say about Lawrence except for one thing - he has stopped producing a high number of sacks. And yes, that is super important.

FiveThirtyEight did a statistical analysis of the impact of pressure and sacks on offensive production. Here is a brief explanation of what they did.

But exactly how much of an effect can a sack or pressure on the QB have on the outcome of a drive? What are the chances that a team can overcome a sack for a productive series? To find out, we looked at 126,205 regular-season plays from the past three seasons and grouped them by drive. We removed series that ended at halftime or the end of the game itself, and we took out rare events like safeties and blocked field goals or punts. Then we tallied up the outcomes of drives that included at least one sack or quarterback pressure and compared them with drives with no sacks or quarterback pressure.

And you know what they found? Sacks matter. A lot. And they matter much more than just pressure does. Pressure was not a statistically significant factor in creating turnovers. Creating pressure did help limit scoring, but not nearly as much as a sack. They found that pressure added a 0.41 EPA per play for the defense. Not exactly earth-shattering. They also found that pressure during a series made the offense punt 5.7% more often than with no pressure.

In contrast, a sack added a 1.47 EPA per play for the defense. That is over a point higher than pressure. A sack also resulted in 18.2% more frequent punts for the offense. And passing touchdowns on drives featuring a sack were down 10.9%. On drives with just a pressure they were down .7%.

Here is the overall conclusion from the study that covered the years 2017-2019.

Optimizing for sacks makes sense in this light, but they’re fairly rare outcomes. Across the NFL, teams averaged a pressure about once every nine defensive plays in 2019. Meanwhile, they mustered a sack just about 3 percent of the time, or once every 34 plays. To justify spending top-tier draft capital on a pass rusher, that player needs to do more than just pressure the QB. He needs to get home, wrap up and take the QB to the ground. And he needs to do it frequently.

The next time someone tells you sacks don’t matter that much, don’t believe it. They are incredibly important.

And the Cowboys aren’t exactly getting a big return on investment for sacks with Lawrence’s contract. Below is a chart that shows how much each sack costs for the top paid edge/pass rushers in the league over the last three years. It is not normalized for games missed due to injuries, suspensions, COVID or other things, so it is only a rough estimate of production by compensation. Still, Lawrence’s production in the sack department is near the bottom.

Chart researched and created by BTB’s Aidan Davis.

To make this point again, this isn’t a call for dumping Lawrence, he still brings a lot to the table. And he may once again regain his sack form, either in Dallas or somewhere else. But before we go off too hard on the Cowboys brain-trust if they decide to release Lawrence, we should remember there is a reasonable argument to be made that Lawrence has been under-performing in the most important category for his position.

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